Sunday, December 16, 2007

Better Than Sugar Plums

What have I done, leaving you with no new recipes for nearly two weeks in the height of holiday baking season?! Well, we've begun settling into our new home now, the sheet pans are unpacked, and our internet connection is finally up and running. It's all getting okay now. Exhale.

It was no more than three days in our new apartment before I got to holiday cookie baking. Between the nip in the air and the darling way our new neighborhood has decorated the main drag (ornaments and greenery on every parking meter, people!), I knew I couldn't prioritize finding a new dentist or something over dreaming up this year's cookie tins. Despite all the possibilities out there, it was obvious where I would begin. No cookie brings me more delicious, crumbly Christmas joy than my Gramma's sugar cookies.

I've talked before about my love of heirloom recipes, and this one fits the bill beautifully, copied from a yellowed strip of newsprint tucked into a recipe box full of Gramma's Greatest Hits. It is the crispest of sugar cookies, sandy-textured but tender with a gorgeous pale golden color that begs for a smattering of colored sugar. You never knew the humble ingredients of butter and sugar could have so much flavor until you've had this cookie. Making the whole thing that much more interesting is the addition of vegetable oil and confectioners' sugar to the usual fat and sugar combination, both of which help to keep the cookie's tender crispness for days on end, a perfect candidate for cheery cookie tins to give as holiday gifts. And both the dough and the finished cookies stash away in the freezer like a dream, giving you another reason to make them the first baking project on your list--they wait in delicious patience while you get the other elements of your cookie tins together.

When making these cookies, I keep them like the ones I grew up loving from Gramma's cookie plate by lining up walnut-sized balls of dough onto baking sheets and flattening each with a drinking glass dipped in granulated sugar before baking (my beloved vanilla sugar is excellent for this purpose). But if you're feeling like turning this recipe into a rolled dough for play with cookie cutters, it can be done--just be prepared for some doing. The extremely soft dough can be made workable by dividing it into fourths, forming the portions into discs wrapped in plastic wrap, then freezing them until somewhat firm (about half an hour). Then roll the discs thin between sheets of parchment or plastic wrap, freeze them again until they are very firm (an hour or two or even overnight) before attempting to cut it into shapes. It will thaw very quickly out of the freezer, however, so make your shapes out of one portion at a time and get them into the oven immediately.

To make them just like the cookies my Gramma makes, I sprinkle them with glittering coarse sugar in rainbow colors, adding crunch, festive color and the charm that only an heirloom Christmas cookie recipe can bring.

Heirloom Sugar Cookies

With its high yield, this recipe is a great one for making lots of cookies to give away as gifts, but it works just as well when halved to make a smaller batch. You can also freeze any leftover dough for up to a month, wrapped tightly.

Makes 6-7 dozen

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar, plus extra for flattening the cookies
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
2 teaspoons good vanilla extract
5 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and position your oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking liners or parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, soda, cream of tartar and salt and set aside.

In a large glass measuring cup or similar vessel, whisk together the oil, eggs and vanilla until well-combined and set that aside as well.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or with an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugars on medium speed until fluffy and pale in color, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl every so often. Reduce the mixer speed and gradually pour in the oil and egg mixture, beating until the resulting mixer is smooth and somewhat uniform in texture, like a thin cake batter. Stop the mixer, and in three batches, add the dry ingredients, mixing on low speed and scraping the bowl before each addition. Mix on low speed until all the dry ingredients are incorporated. The dough will be very soft.

To form the cookies, roll walnut-sized balls of the dough (about 25-27 grams each if you are a cookie-weighing nerd like myself) and place on the prepared baking sheets, one dozen to a sheet. Pour about 1/4 cup of granulated sugar (or vanilla sugar) onto a plate. Ever so slightly dampen the bottom of a drinking glass with water on your fingertips, dip it into the sugar to coat the bottom of the glass and flatten each cookie to about 1/4 inch thickness, dipping the glass with more sugar in between each cookie (you should only need to dampen the glass with water at the beginning of the process; the butter from the dough will keep the glass a bit sticky after that).

Sprinkle the flattened cookies with coarse rainbow colored sugar or other decorative sugars. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back about halfway through, until pale golden and just beginning to turn golden brown at the edges. Cool on the baking sheets for two minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely before storing or serving.

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